Wikis, literacy and knowledge production.

Hans J Massaquoi with a Nazi Swastika on his jumper
Hans J Massaquoi with a Nazi Swastika on his jumper

I have successfully managed to put off writing a blog for a good few years. Too many things to do, self-indulgent etc. However, a recent conversation with a fellow teacher (Dai Barnes) made me change my mind. I mentioned some of the things I was planning to do in my lessons over the next few weeks over twitter. Dai, being the supportive soul that he is, said I should log the process so other people could learn from it. So this is what I have decided to do!

I always wish I could get my students to read more History. I may have cracked it with my A2 class (as they have been set a book to review) but generally it does not work with my students lower down the school. We do have a History Book Club and many students join in but I would ideally want the students to get really excited about what they read. A possible solution to this problem came from a conversation with one of my IB students and Doug Belshaw. My IB student told me about Hans J Massaquoi, the son of Liberian father and German mother who lived in Hamburg during the Third Reich and was not sent to a concentration camp. I was surprised. Knowing what the Nazis felt about the children descended from the African French forces in the Ruhr area in the 1920s, how could I not be? When I found the book on Amazon, I was in for another surprise. Amongst the white faces on the front cover was a lone dark face with a Nazi symbol on his jumper. I immediately thought the picture would be a great starter for my lesson on Nazi racial ideas but as I started to read this Swastika wearing boy’s life story, I thought it could be used for something more.  I then did what most people do when they want to find more information – I googled him. There was an entry on Wikipedia but it was  a basic entry with little detail about his extraordinary life. I then thought it would be exciting story to tell my students but a conversation with my friend, co-worker and fellow conspirator Doug Belshaw changed my mind. What if I got the students to fill in the details? They would be reading for a purpose. Result. They would also be writing with a purpose and making a contribution to knowledge rather than just making sure they got full marks on a ‘developed statements’ question. They would be ‘doing’ History.

Doug’s suggestion created more questions, especially in terms of making it pedagogically viable. If there is one thing I have learned when using any tool to get my students to think, it is that I should think about how they will use it to get my desired goal. A key question was how I could manage the process and check that everyone contributed in some way? Moodle came to mind. We are currently running a trial at the school and I have been aching to try out the Wiki tool. This seemed like an excellent opportunity and although it seemed best to use Moodle to create groups to work on the wiki in my class, at the History Department meeting today it was agreed that each class would compete against each other with the winning class providing the entry for Wikipedia. I’m really excited to see what happens. More to the point, my class are amazed. I simply sold it to them that they could be helping people across the world to write their homework tasks on Hans J Massaquoi for years to come. They seemed happy about that. Wikipedia, of course, is the fountain of all knowledge. :)

Front image: The Wall of Knowledge by Vanhookc @ Flickr

  • Kerry Turner

    What an excellent idea Nick! Fascinating topic as well. Perhaps other history teachers could come up with other books which could encourage this type of development and research. Or the school librarian? Too often librarians have to resort to all kinds of tactics to get students to read. This type of project would have relevance on a number of levels. I’ll certainly be passing this idea on to our history department – especially as we’re pushing hard in this ‘Year of Reading’.

    Moodle?! ;0)


  • Doug Belshaw

    Really glad our conversation started you thinking, Nick – and congratulations on your first (new) blog post!

    I’m really looking forward to seeing what you end up doing with this. :-)

  • Nick

    Thanks for the comments – at least two people are reading my posts! :)

    Kerry, I think the librarian idea is brilliant and I will speak to her this week about this and something else I have planned. :)

    I have some interesting ideas about using Moodle with my Sixth Form. Once I have set it up there will be another post…

    Doug, conversations with you usually end up with great ideas and that particular conversation is no different!

  • daibarnes

    Excellent ideas. I see the future (if not the present) of teaching and learning in exploiting opportunities that present themselves for projects using tools of choice that suit the context. It is a great idea to get classes to compete and then put forward the winning entry to wikipedia. However, I wonder if any bright spark with a pinch of umbrage might decide to go and replace the winning content with their classes? Even still the integrity of public media should even the playing field. Would love to hear more about how you plan to divvy up the wiki workload within one class and how the pupils respond to it. Always good to hear about a teachers/classes wiki experience.

    Sadly Wikipedia have banned our school IP address twice now due to inappropriate edits being made from inside school. I have never followed it up to see what was edited etc. Must have a look to see if I can trace it…

  • Nick

    Dai, you are right in that the winning content might be replaced but the real focus is being asked to put the material there in the first place and once it is up, I’ll capture it!

    Failing that, I will create a site with their work on. :)

    As for dividing up the work, the book has natural subheadings so I may use those. Or, I may ask them to read a few pages and focus on some key issues like his schooling, his encounters with the SS and so on.

    You are so right that it really should be about exploiting the opportunities that present themselves and then selecting the right tools rather than the other way round. I have been guilty of it in the past and to be honest, the learning situation is not as developed.

  • Ed Podesta

    The real strengths of this idea are in the careful thought you’re putting into how this works Nick!

    I love the sense of engagement that you’ve created too, I’d be really interested to see how this plays out, in two ways (I apologise that it’s taken me so long to find your post, I realise that lots will have happened since you posted it):

    What are the scaffolds that you’re putting in place to help students access the task; and
    What sort of assessment criteria will you be using when thinking about their successes?

  • Nick

    Hi Ed, thanks!

    In terms of scaffolds they are two: The first is in the selection of the source material with some aspects focused on his school life, contact with the Nazis (when he wanted to join the army as one example) and dealing with the hardship of living during the war. Secondly, there will be guidelines in terms of a ‘style’ which is close to their natural style when writing (as shown in their supposed analytical pieces of work)!

    As for the assessment criteria, we are still working on those as the project will run after Christmas. Pretty simple to construct in terms of output as it will link to other assessment guidelines for writing but there will be extra elements to cover the collaborative aspect.